Elisabeth Mathisen belongs to the 1990s generation of Scandinavian artists, who have worked for many years with performance, drawing and video. She now brings her works, spanning more than a decade, to The Wapping Project in London.
Unlike her British contemporaries, Mathisen’s work is political; it examines the distance between the turbulent everyday world of the private individual and the silent, unchanging face of power. “The video, Below The Surface, 2005, is shot from a hotel room in the Oslo red light district. The camera is still, pointed at some buildings in the centre of Oslo, while the sound recording is authentic. In the video I wanted to let the architecture stand as monumental, firm and still alongside the mobile sound, which contains so many images. The viewer has witnessed, glimpsed, sensed something illicit, something which was not quite permissible,” she says.
In the video “Hun vil jo alltid være moren min” (She will always be my mother), the central film in this body of work, Mathisen relates a powerful story about a young girl who has grown up with a mother who is a drug addict and a prostitute. The story is put across soberly, and the viewer senses the degree of shame and what it means to be systematically accorded lower priority than the need for a fix. “In the video I am talking to a young woman who has grown up with a mother who is a drug addict and a prostitute," explains Mathisen. "I wondered what this had done to the young woman’s relationship to her mother. She talks about her past experiences and memories of growing up. Through her story, memories emerge of authorities like the police, social and child welfare behaving offensively towards mother and daughter, humiliating them in public places”
In earlier works, Mathisen has approached shame as an oppressive mechanism, using a language that is more explicit in its gender politics, as can be seen in her video “Innenfor fire hjørner” (Within Four Corners) of 2001. This work consists of several short sequences in which the artist herself goes in front of the camera and enacts tableaux with dark humour and a clearly feminist agenda. “In my first video, Mother Tongue, 1993, I directed the camera towards myself. I wanted to express the contents of what I was interested in by using my own body. I wanted to say something about my experiences of life, about that which lay closest to my own reality, even if concrete themes underpin the sounds and the visuals.”
Since Elisabeth Mathisen’s style has been so explicit and on occasion unpolished, she has found a place on neither the commercial nor the institutional circuit, and she has consistently been interpreted within the framework of the narrow pigeonhole referred to as 'feminist art'. In its day, feminism blazed a trail for broader experiential horizons within American art circles, which until the 1970s were dominated by white men. “I treated both the video camera and objects carelessly. The sound is sometimes unclean and consists of noise and the slamming of things. This became a part of the expression with images that could have a more relaxed casual aesthetic. An unclean aesthetic to put it that way, while I wanted some of my femaleness to be included at the same time. And it might well be strengthened so as to appear intense and aggressive," she concludes.
Below the Surface
2 May – 28 May
Noon to 11.00pm, Mondays to Saturdays
Noon to 6.00pm, Sundays
The Wapping Project
Wapping Hydraulic Power Station
Wapping Wall, E1W 3ST
020 7680 2080